By Vivian Nguyen
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
For as long as he can remember, Matt Chan has had a love affair with visual media.
“I was always drawn to movies and TV in high school,” said Chan. “There was no doubt that this was what I wanted to do [when I was older].”
A Portland native, Chan sought a career in filmmaking as a student at the University of Oregon. But he couldn’t get into any of the classes he needed. So he redirected his sights to broadcast television and discovered how much he enjoyed the industry.
Chan graduated with a bachelor’s degree in broadcast communications and soon found work with a local radio station.
“I didn’t like it much,” said Chan of his first job. “And I didn’t have any formal training for radio [work], but I eventually moved into public television for Portland where I found my first opportunities to do producing and directing.”
In the fall of 1978, Chan moved into commercial broadcasting for KING-TV in Seattle. He also freelanced for the major networks as a producer. He was eventually hired to run the national version of the popular “Evening Magazine” at KPIX-TV in San Francisco.
At KPIX-TV, he worked on the show as an editor, field producer, and line producer.
After a few years, Chan decided to settle down and start a family, so he took a job with KXTV in Sacramento, Calif. He accepted the position of creative services director.
“I did all the advertising and programming — basically anything on the air that wasn’t news was my responsibility,” Chan said.
Chan’s team produced many nationally syndicated series, and he became the director of programming and production in 1991. The A.H. Belo Corporation, the company that owned his station, was pleased with his success and created Belo Productions.
Screaming Flea Productions
Chan went on to become president of Belo Productions. When the corporation wanted to relocate his station to its headquarters in Dallas, Tex., Chan purchased his division and moved it to Seattle instead.
“I didn’t want anything to do with Texas … I wanted to stay in the Northwest, close to my roots,” said Chan.
In January 1999, Chan rechristened his team Screaming Flea Productions (SFP).
Armed with a network of contacts, Chan had no problem hitting the ground running with SFP. Since its inception, SFP has developed and produced a number of innovative shows such as “Three Sheets” on the Fine Living Network, “Sell This House” on A&E, and several others for Discovery Channel, TLC, and Biography. But it is SFP’s groundbreaking show, “Hoarders” on A&E, that has taken viewers by storm.
Featured in a 60-minute segment, each episode of “Hoarders” showcases the intertwined, parallel stories of two different people whose struggles to part with their belongings spiral so out of control that their lives evolve into personal crises.
But what creates compelling TV?
Developing the concept
“To create a story viewers want to watch … there needs to be drama and a crisis timeframe,” said Chan. “For example, if they don’t clean up their house, something bad will happen.”
“There also needs to be a ‘good guy’ and a ‘bad guy’ … The ‘good guy’ being the hoarder and the ‘bad guy’ perhaps being a well-meaning family member or an authority.”
It is ironic that Chan first became intrigued with the concept of hoarding after watching a news program in Japan. The segment featured a reporter interviewing a man who had thrown out his garbage on his front lawn. Later in the segment, the reporter returned with a crew to clean up the trash, but they end up arguing with the man over the clean-up.
“I didn’t understand a single word of it,” said Chan of the Japanese news show. “But I found the argument between them so interesting because of the clashing dynamic … I knew people would want to watch this.”
“Hoarders” features people who are far from typical slobs. From people who own dozens of cats — both alive and dead — to dwellers living amid sky-high filth, Chan also believes that there’s a train-wreck appeal to watching people hoard.
“[Viewers] get why people [on our show] do what they do … everyone understands the empathy behind hoarding.”
After his return, Chan started working on the show’s concept and researching places where people were occupied with hoarding. His investigation led him to a company in California that did crime scene clean up. They also specialized in clearing out junk from hoarders’ homes.
“We just took that concept and refined it by adding personal storylines,” said Chan.
Dealing with “Hoarders” success
SFP pitched “Hoarders” to several different networks, but they all turned down the show. A&E eventually picked it up, and the series launched in August 2009, bringing in record-breaking numbers of viewers.
“It was A&E’s biggest premiere ever,” said Chan. “Other networks started asking us to do a show like ‘Hoarders’ for them … but we couldn’t do anything like that for anyone else since we were under contract with A&E.”
One of the networks that approached SFP during this time was TLC, who originally rejected the show. When SFP was unable to produce a show for them, TLC produced their own version, “Hoarders: Buried Alive.”
“I was unhappy when it first surfaced on TV,” said Chan of the incident. But he remains unfazed. “It’s true what they say about imitation, it’s the best form of flattery.”
He also notes that despite the similarly in names, the two shows differ in format.
“The TLC version doesn’t tell a story … there’s no beginning, no end. They only provide a narration of the hoarders’ problems,” said Chan. “Ours is told in first person, providing a more raw and real look into the disease [of hoarding].”
“We also give a solution to the people featured on our show and provide them with therapists for recovery. We like to follow-up on each person at the end of every episode … as a viewer, you always want to know what happened [to that person].”
On Asians in the media
One group Chan specifically hopes to help on his show are Asian Americans.
“The tendency to hoard cuts across social and economic lines … it affects everyone. But culturally speaking, it’s hard to find Asian Americans willing to come forward on [“Hoarders”] since there’s a fear of losing face and bringing shame to the family,” said Chan.
But he’s quick to emphasize that he doesn’t want them on the show for ratings.
“They need to know that we’ll treat their story respectfully … we want to help them find solutions for a problem that they may otherwise not know how to deal with.”
In response to Asian Americans who may dislike seeing other Asian Americans on TV in a less-than-favorable light, Chan insists that this move is necessary for them to become more mainstream in the media.
“Asian Americans complain that there’s a lack of people like them in the media, but they react too quickly any time they’re perceived or cast in a poor light,” said Chan. “They need to be willing to have their culture put in the mainstream so that it’s vulnerable and open to criticism like every other ethnic group. It’s important to talk, and the only way to make any gains [in the media] is to let discussion happen, both the good and the bad because it’s never going to be all bad.” ♦
Vivian Nguyen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.